Just Whose Idea Was All This Testing?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Second in a series of occasional articles on testing.

In ancient Greece, Socrates tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response. To them, accuracy was for shopkeepers.

Today, educators often hold up the Socratic method as the best kind of teaching.

So how did we go from that ideal to an educational model shaped -- and perhaps even ruled -- by standardized, normed, charted, graphed, regressed, calibrated and validated testing? Students in the Washington area are likely to know more about the MSA (Maryland School Assessments), the SOL (Virginia's Standards of Learning) and the D.C. CAS (D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System) than they do about Socrates and his illustrious student Plato.

Critics say standardized testing has robbed schools of the creative clash of intellects that make Plato's dialogues still absorbing. "There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all," said educational psychologist Gerald W. Bracey, research columnist for the Phi Delta Kappan education journal.

Historians call the rise of testing an inevitable outgrowth of expanding technology. As goods and services are delivered with greater speed and in higher quantity and quality, education has been forced to pick up the pace.

Standardized exams have many sources. In imperial China in the A.D. 7th century, government job applicants had to write essays about Confucian philosophy and compose poetry. In Europe, the invention of the printing press and modern paper manufacturing fueled the growth of written exams.

By 1845 in the United States, public education advocate Horace Mann was calling for standardized essay testing. Spelling tests, geography tests and math tests blossomed in schools, although they were rarely standardized.

At the outset of the 20th century, educators began to experiment with tests that took shortcuts around the old essay methods. French psychologist Alfred Binet developed an intelligence test about 1905. Frederick J. Kelly of the University of Kansas designed a multiple-choice test in 1914. Scanning machines followed. Many Americans accepted these tests as efficient tools to help build a society based on merit, not birth or race or wealth.

Still, modern testing had a clumsy start as psychologists experimented with exams to help employers, schools and others rate applicants. In one early case, testing expert H.H. Goddard identified as "feeble-minded" 83 percent of Jews, 80 percent of Hungarians, 79 percent of Italians and 87 percent of Russians among a small group of immigrants assessed at Ellis Island.

"Consider a group of frightened men and women who speak no English and who have just endured an oceanic voyage in steerage," Harvard University science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote of the Goddard study. "Most are poor and have never gone to school; many have never held a pencil or pen in their hand." Yet Goddard's interviewers expected them to sit down with a pencil and "reproduce on paper a figure shown to them a moment ago, but now withdrawn from their sight."

Eventually, testing experts focused on standardizing the measure of learning, not of innate intelligence.

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